Climate change

Climate Smart Agriculture

CSA promises agricultural transformation that at the same time responds to climate change. But can it deliver?

Albalami Bezehkaya voluntary association|Australia Department of Foreign Affairs | Kate Holt/Africa Practice | CC BY 2.0 Flickr
Edited by Tracy Zussman
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Agriculture is the lead sector in many developing countries, often employing a majority of the population. Agriculture also has intrinsic links to other key sectors such as water, energy, health and environment. How agricultural production copes with climate change and how farming practices respond to it are therefore critical questions in the debate around climate change and development. The term “climate smart agriculture” (CSA) describes one set of possible answers. 

Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action

FarmingFirst: Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action

CSA emerged as a family of agricultural technologies that promised to deliver a “triple win” of sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and farmer incomes whilst at the same time increasing resilience to climate change impacts (adaptation) and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation).

In other words CSA’s proponents, like many have before them, promise agricultural transformation but also aim to achieve this in a way that is responsive to the evolving circumstances and needs of farmers resulting from a changing climate.

Continue reading: Concepts, evidence, viewpoints

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Jules Siedenburg 

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Concepts, evidence, viewpoints

As a result many CSA solutions resemble others long advocated in the sector but still insufficiently realised on the ground - such as measures to use improved seeds, control erosion, and foster tree planting. Proponents argue that CSA initiatives can offer fresh impetus to overcome barriers to farmer adoption – such as knowledge gaps or weak support institutions – while adjusting solutions to the new reality of climate change.

CSA offers a methodological focus that emphasises ecosystem management, sustainable land/ water use and the utilisation of technologies appropriate to a particular context - based on a specific and detailed assessment of the pros and cons.

Advocates of CSA cite plenty of examples of local successes – projects that have doubled farm production on average despite climate change impacts, while also helping mitigate climate change and rehabilitate degraded lands. But a challenge for those advocates has been to understand how these local successes can be scaled up and reproduced - and why, if these technologies hold such promise, the neighbouring communities often fail to adopt them.

Sceptics also suggest that the CSA “triple win” is intrinsically difficult to achieve in practice due to trade-offs between the three goals of adaptation, mitigation and increased productivity. Pursuing them together can, in fact, have adverse effects - for instance  if maximising mitigation gains ends up meaning deprioritisation of food production. And how these goals are balanced within a project or programme might end up being determined by power dynamics between the different stakeholders rather than any objective assessment of opportunities and costs.

Continue reading: CSA and food security


Is Climate-Smart Agriculture effective? A review of selected cases
Climate Change Agriculture Food Security, 2015
Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) is an approach to address the interlinked challenges of food security and climate change, and has three objectives: (1) sustainably increasing agricultural productivity, to support equitable increases in farm incomes, food security and development; (2) adapting and building resilience of agricultural and food security systems to climate change at multiple levels; and (3) reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture(including crops, livestock and fisheries).
The scientific basis of climate-smart agriculture: a systematic review protocol
Climate Change Agriculture Food Security, 2016
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA)—agriculture and food systems that sustainably increase food production, improve resilience (or adaptive capacity) of farming systems, and mitigate climate change when possible—has quickly been integrated into the global development agenda. However, the empirical evidence base for CSA has not been assembled, complicating the transition from CSA concept to concrete actions, and contributing to ideological disagreement among development practitioners.
Farming’s climate smart future: placing agriculture at the heart of climate-change policy
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, 2011
This paper places agriculture at the heart of climate change policy stating that climate change is already changing the face of farming. Increases in temperature, changing patterns of rainfall, more extreme droughts and floods, and the shifting distribution of pests and diseases can all be attributed in part to the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from human activities.
Policies and practices for climate smart agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa: A comparative assessment of challenges and opportunities across 15 countries
Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Policy Analysis Network, 2014
This report is a product of the collaboration between the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and the Earth System Governance Project, on policies for climate-smart agriculture.
Climate-smart agriculture sourcebook
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013
This comprehensive sourcebook on climate-smart agriculture (CSA), produced by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, consists of eighteen modules covering every aspect of planning and implementing CSA policies and projects. Aimed primarily at developing countries, the opening module outlines the case for CSA (including forestry and fisheries), discussing issues such as food security, resilient systems, and systemic efficiency.
Reaching more farmers: Innovative approaches to scaling up climate-smart agriculture
Climate Change Agriculture Food Security, 2015
The purpose of this working paper is to provide insight into how we can use novel approaches to scale up research findings on climate-smart agriculture (CSA) to meaningfully address the challenges of poverty and climate change. The approaches described include those based on value chains and private sector involvement, policy engagement, and information and communication technologies and agro-advisory services. The paper draws on 11 case studies to exemplify these new approaches to scaling up.

CSA and food security

The causes of food insecurity are complex, but production problems are a key factor, especially among the small-scale farmers who constitute the majority of undernourished people. Increased rainfall variability and more frequent droughts and floods resulting from climate change are likely to seriously disrupt food production in many countries further reducing crop and livestock productivity. 

At the same time demand for food is set to rise dramatically over the coming decades due to both population growth and changing dietary preferences, just as climate change impacts are anticipated to worsen.
Taken together, these three factors – food insecurity, climate change, growing demand – constitute a “perfect storm” of large and growing food needs coupled with constrained supply. Agriculture must find ways to meet current and future food needs despite climate change, in order to avoid the risk of still wider hunger. CSA technologies, with the right investment, might offer hope of doing this but  important questions remain.

Food sovereignty advocates have raised some important questions about how CSA disrupts current aspects of the food production system such as land ownership, trade rules, and the role of agribusiness. They warn that CSA could be appropriated by powerful interests to advance their own objectives and caution against simply assuming these ‘triple win’ technologies will benefit everyone. If the promise of CSA is to be realised, such criticisms will need to be addressed.


Topic Guide: Climate change, food security and agriculture
Evidence on Demand, 2015
This Topic Guide addresses the threat that climate change poses to food security and poverty reduction achievements.
Making climate-smart agriculture work for the poor
World Agroforestry Centre, 2011
This policy brief focuses on the challenges in making climate-smart agricultural (CSA) production work for the poor, who will be the most vulnerable to climate impacts. The brief highlights three main constraints: Food insecure farmers find it hard to innovate and invest in better management systems when they are fully occupied finding sufficient food to survive. Many CSA practices incur establishment and maintenance costs and it can take considerable time before farmers benefit from them. Access to markets and capital are key constraints for resource-poor farmers, and limit their abilit
Food security and food production systems
Cambridge University, 2014
This chapter highlights that the effects of climate change on crop and terrestrial food production are evident in several regions of the world and are affecting the abundance and distribution of harvested aquatic species, both freshwater and marine, and aquaculture production systems. It argues that changes in climate and CO2 concentration will enhance the distribution and increase the competitiveness of agronomically important and invasive weeds.
Climate-smart agriculture for food security in Africa
Arid Lands Information Network, 2011
Agriculture in developing countries must change significantly to meet the related challenges of food security and climate change. This edition of Joto Afrika shows that in Africa, there are numerous proven, low-cost, climate-smart agricultural innovations that smallholders can adopt. But the potential for these to play a significant role in increasing the climate resilience of food production systems has largely not yet been realized. Expanding the range of innovations available for climate risk management is imperative.
Clever Name, Losing Game? How Climate Smart Agriculture is sowing confusion in the food movement
ActionAid International, 2014
This report highlights questions being raised about the concept of ‘climate smart’ agriculture (CSA). It highlights that a number of industrialised countries, along with a number of agribusiness corporations, have promoted CSA enthusiastically.
Achieving food security in the face of climate change: final report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change
Climate Change Agriculture Food Security, 2012
This report, released by the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, identifies a set of clear actions to be undertaken by key stakeholders to achieve food security in the context of climate change. It reasons that widespread uptake of sustainable practices in agriculture and food supply chains is essential to meet current and future threats to food security and environmental resilience.

Climate Resilient Farming Systems

Farmers and pastoralists have always had to deal with variations in the local climate so have developed longstanding coping mechanisms. These include crop diversification and mutual support arrangements. But such measures may prove inadequate to deal with the magnitude and frequency of climatic variations observed under climate change.

CSA technologies seek to address this gap by further enhancing the climate resilience of farming systems, and hence minimising the adverse effects of climate change on farm production. Some CSA technologies also harness untapped potential within farming systems and hence raise farm production. Common technologies and approaches for building climate resilience for agriculture include the use of weather data and climate modelling to inform farming decisions, weather-indexed crop insurance schemes and the use of new hybrid seed varieties designed to cope with heat stress, drought or floods. But these will only bear fruit if they are accessible, usable and affordable for farmers.

Alternative technologies that utilise agro-ecological farming practices such as soil and water conservation tend to be more readily accessible to farmers since they require few purchased inputs, and can also diversify production. But take up of these technologies has often been poor and we need to understand better why it is that they often fail to spread.


Increasing resilience to droughts in Viet Nam: the role of forests, agroforestry, and climate smart agriculture
Climate Change Agriculture Food Security, 2016
The 2015-16 drought is the most severe that Viet Nam has experienced in at least 90 years. In the Central Highlands, South Central Coast, and Mekong Delta regions, 18 provinces have declared a state of emergency and 22 provinces have been seriously affected. Future projections indicate that the affected regions will be exposed to longer and possibly more frequent drought conditions and flooding due to climate change. Natural forests provide ecosystem services that mitigate the impacts of droughts and floods.
Climate change, household vulnerability and smart agriculture: the case of two South African provinces
International Development Research Centre, 2016
The impact of climate change disasters poses significant challenges for South Africa especially for vulnerable rural households. In South Africa there is dearth of knowledge of the impacts of climate change at the local level, especially in rural areas. Rural households are generally poor and lack resources to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change associated disasters. The extent of vulnerability of rural households to climate change related disasters is largely not understood.
Closing the gender gap in climate-smart agriculture
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, 2015
Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has become a central concept shaping action and bringing together constituencies at the global level on agriculture and climate change often with explicit attention to how interventions in agriculture and food systems affect each of three key outcomes: food security, adaptation and mitigation.In this brief review of recent approaches relevant to climate smart agriculture (CSA) programs, the researcher presents ideas on why emerging CSA policies and plans lack the attention to gender that would enable the transformative change that supporters of CSA claim to seek
Adapting to climate change through land and water management in Eastern Africa: Results of pilot projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014
FAO-Sida report providing evidence and lessons learned from a climate adaptation pilot project in Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. With around 80 per cent of the population of the Eastern African region dependent on agriculture which is at risk from climate change impacts, particularly increasing water scarcity and more variable rainfall and seasonal patterns, countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia face a pressing need to implement climate adaptation measures.
The adaptation advantage: The economic benefits of preparing small-scale farmers for climate change
International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2013
This paper features five case studies of rural development projects which represent a variety of situations in which environmental or climate-related problems pose a challenge to human development. The projects are based in Kenya, Turkey, Viet Nam, Bangladesh and Bolivia. It is argued that it is possible to quantify the benefits that arise from adaptation investments in economic and financial terms.

Agriculture and Climate Change Mitigation

Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change, representing 20 to 25 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. But the sector also offers major opportunities for developing countries to combat climate change by reducing emissions and, more significantly, through carbon sequestration.

CSA technologies such as conservation tillage and precision fertiliser use have some potential to limit the carbon footprint of farming but the potential impact of this is dwarfed by carbon sink technologies such as agroforestry and composting which account for 90 percent of agriculture’s mitigation potential.

Advocates of CSA emphasise the potential of CSA mitigation technologies to be “pro-poor” – in other words to be beneficial to small-scale farmers in developing countries, many of whom are poor. They argue that mitigation initiatives that use appropriately targeted CSA technologies have some inherent benefits for farmers but can also directly benefit them financially via payments for delivering ecosystem services under carbon trading schemes or public sector mitigation initiatives such as NAMAs. 

However, critics question whether efforts to mitigate climate change via farming can really benefit poor farming communities, noting for instance that high transaction costs make it hard for small farmers to participate in carbon projects leaving powerful agribusiness interests to reap the financial benefits. This in turn can further exacerbate challenges faced by small-scale farming communities by, for example, limiting their control over, and access to, land.

Continue reading: Back to introduction


Climate change impacts and mitigation in the developing world: an integrated assessment of the agriculture and forestry sectors
Policy Research Working Papers, World Bank, 2015
This paper conducts an integrated assessment of climate change impacts and climate mitigation on agriculturalcommodity markets and food availability in low- and middle-income countries. The analysis uses the partialequilibrium model GLOBIOM to generate scenarios to 2080. The findings show that climate change effects onthe agricultural sector will increase progressively over the century. By 2030, the impact of climate change on foodconsumption is moderate but already twice as large in a world with high inequalities than in a more equal world.
Carbon sequestration in agricultural soils
World Bank, 2012
This report aims to improve the knowledge base for scaling-up investments in land management technologies that sequester soil carbon for increased productivity under changing climate conditions.
Tackling climate change through livestock: A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013
It has been known for several years that livestock supply chains are an important contributor to climate change. Yet, despite existing and attainable potential to significantly reduce these greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, political will and the right policies are still required. This report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation seeks to provide the much-needed evidence-base that will allow the process of reform to move forward. The paper begins by way of an introduction and explanation of the methodologies used in the study.
Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
, 2014
The Working Group III contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gives an assessment of the scientific literature on climate change mitigation. It builds upon the Working Group III contribution to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) in 2007, the Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN) in 2011 and previous reports and incorporates subsequent new findings and research. The report assesses mitigation options at different levels of governance and in different economic sectors.
Towards policies for climate change mitigation: incentives and benefits for smallholder farmers
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, 2012
Agriculture has been previously neglected by climate negotiators and policymakers, but this is changing due to an increasing understanding of the links between climate change and agriculture.
National integrated mitigation planning in agriculture: a review paper
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013
This review of national greenhouse gas mitigation planning in the agriculture sector has two objectives: to provide national policymakers and others in the agriculture sector with an overview of national mitigation planning processes and aid then in identifying the relevance of these processes for promoting agricultural development; and to provide policymakers and advisors involved in low-emission development planning processes with an overview of mitigation planning in the agriculture sector and in particular to highlight the relevance of agriculture to national mitigation plans and actions.